One of the products of my Midwestern upbringing was the importance placed on such basic skills as carpentry, agriculture and cooking. While I don’t think my parents were especially worried survival in the aftermath of World War Z, I do think they were passing along some lessons around self-reliance and the confidence that comes with knowing how things work in the physical world. I would extend that necessary realm into including some basic awareness of physics and how our world fits in with the rest of the universe, so imagine my dismay upon learning that 8 out of 10 Americans think that we have summer because the Earth is orbiting closer to the Sun! Setting aside the less obvious in that the Earth’s perihelion is in December…ahem, winter for us northern hemisphere denizens…the concept of a longer days and shorter nights might be a hint that the Earth’s ecliptic plane is non zero. Earth’s 23.44 degrees tilt is what causes the changes in solar exposure that result in seasons. Yes yes, I know, Milankovitch pulled together the impacts of eccentricity, obliquity, axial precession, apsidal precession and of course orbital inclination but that’s not gonna help when the zombies come knocking!
These tilt-caused long days of summer, despite their many benefits in terms of recreational activities, do have a down side in that star gazing winds up being a late late night activity! This might explain the dark circles under my eyes over the coming month as I’m forced to stay out late or, better yet, get up early to enjoy the spectacle of the Perseids. So named as their radiant lies within the constellation Perseus, these annual meteors will reach their peak this year the night of my birthday (August 11th, no presents please) but can be enjoyed from mid July through to late August. Perseus will rise in the evening to the northeast – tucked just underneath Cassiopeia – but your best viewing bet is to look wherever your sky is the darkest. The Perseids are caused by the tail debris from the Swift–Tuttle comet that made its most recent flyby in 1992, and with its 133 year orbital period sadly none of us will be around to see it return in 2126. Side note, until the data was refined in the late 1990s it was anticipated that this next visit would end abruptly with Swift Tuttle colliding with the Earth or Moon. Ouch would be an understatement!
The constellation Perseus has a noble heritage with its namesake Greek hero, the son of Zeus, slaying the evil Gorgon Medusa and offering her head as tribute to the Goddess Athena. In Greek the word Gorgon translates loosely to “dreadful” which reconciles with my opinion of Gorgonzola cheese despite that being a reference to the city of Gorgonzola, Milan in northern Italy. Back to Perseus, you have to appreciate the 007 Q-like nature of his weapons: Zeus’ adamantine sword (apparently used later as Wolverine’s skeletal enhancement), Hades’ helm of darkness, Hermes’ winged sandals and Athena’s polished shield of legendary fame. On his way home Perseus stopped in Ethiopia where he found Andromeda, daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, being offered as a sacrifice to Poseidon via the sea serpent Cetus. Perseus used Medusa’s head to turn Cetus to stone and claimed Andromeda as his wife. What about the Kraken, you ask? While it played a key role in the Pirates of the Caribbean as Davy Jones’ ship-crushing sidekick, and an even larger role in 1981’s classic robo-animotronic Clash of the Titans the Kraken is of Norwegian lineage and does not have its ancestral origins in Greek mythology.
With the Perseids as a product of an older comet locked into an elliptical of seeming eternity, brace yourselves for the new kid on the block and no you don’t need to prepare for a reprise of the 80s/90s bubblegum pop associated with NKOTB (I am still haunted by the melodies of Step by Step in my darker moments.) In late September 2012 two amateur astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok, using a 16-inch telescope that looks like something earned in Z2Live’s Battle Nations, discovered a new comet inbound from the Ort cloud. Having joined their telescope to the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) they ceded naming rights and as such we can all look forward to the arrival of ISON C/2012 later this year. Traveling on a parabolic path – meaning it’s not in an elliptical orbit and this is a one time visit – ISON C/2012 has been classified as a potential Sundiver comet and as such may end its journey abruptly by plunging into the sun. Assuming that doesn’t happen it will at least be a Sungrazer comet reaching perihelion on November 28th, 2013 before whipping around and making its closest flyby to Earth at 40 million miles away on December 26th. Traveling at speeds upwards of 55,000 mph this will represent likely the fastest Christmas present any of us will ever receive. If you have strong binoculars or a small telescope the comet is entering viewable ranges in early August in the North Eastern sky, so look to the northeast and hope that ISON C/2012 is sturdy enough to survive the journey!